Mar 28

With friends like these; or what it means to be an ally

The other day, Anders, a frequent commenter on Natalie Reed’s blog, asked what people thought being an ally to a particular social movement should look like.  While he may have been specifically looking at the transgender movement, I am going to consider this question broadly across all social movements toward equality.

I told him that it was a complicated question. It is. I told him that it started with listening. It does. I told him it ended with doing the right thing with the tools we have. It does that as well.

This post is all about the messy middle.

And boy-oh- boy does it get messy.

To look at being an ally and what that means I am going to draw a complicated analogy that in simple form looks like this:

Ally: Social Movement as Friend: Person

If you think about it in the terms that I replied to Anders in, it makes sense. Being a friend starts with listening and ends with doing the right thing with the tools we have. The rest is likewise another messy middle.

So what does it mean to listen to your person if you are a friend? I am sure we all have had That Friend™, the one who always one-ups you. “I got a ticket yesterday.” “Oh I’m sorry. Let me tell you about my accident last week,” or “I’m so sad about the anniversary of my mom’s passing.” “I know what you mean. My mom isn’t dead but I don’t think I could go on without her.” Now this friend is one who appears to be listening because their replies seem totally in context, but rather than taking the chance to focus on your needs for just one moment, they instead make it “all about them.” They have co-opted your pain, your suffering.

Sometimes it is hard to tell if your friend is only pretending to listen or if they are the type of friend who feels the need to relate somehow. It can take months of interaction. That Friend™ has done a fantastic job of playing on our weaknesses in social cues. Well timed righteous indignation at the mere suggestion they may be less than concerned about you.

Sound familiar to our Allies™ in social movements?

Let me clarify:

A while back, Greta Christina posted in her fantastic style a post entitled, Why “Yes, But” is the Wrong Response to Misogyny. In it she calls out the Allies™ for what they are. People pretending to listen before co-opting the pain of a social movement. The righteous indignation then happened in full force. Claims that Greta left no room for debate on methods by explaining that “yes, but” is not what allies do. I am going to stop right here and say yes, if you read Greta’s words and nothing else that feminists have been saying, the assessment that there is no wiggle room might be somewhat right. The Allies™ hadn’t been listening all along and suddenly were pissed that the social movement has called them on their negligence.

So what does it mean to listen as a friend, as an ally? It certainly doesn’t mean you can’t take your person’s feelings or your social movement’s goals and personalize them. Absolutely you can attempt to empathize, but if friendship, ally-ship is important to you, then you will make the efforts to not make the conversation “all about you.” You will really listen and not cherry pick for the chance to steal the show.

This is where we get to the messy middle.

What if your person, your movement, says something you disagree with? Can you protest?

Think about it like this:

You are my friend and amidst ranting about a mistake made in my order at the local restaurant, I manage to let slide something ablest. In short, I call the order taker a “retard.” Can you call me out on that? Yes. I have done something wrong. Something that violates your ethical code. As a friend you have interests that extend beyond your person’s interests. It isn’t co-opting my pain by politely (or even not so politely) pointing out that I am being ableist.

On the other hand, if I am talking about the guy harassing me at work and I let slip that I wish I could crush him beneath my stiletto so he knows how it feels, and you proceed to say “How dare you? Violence is abhorrent,” you haven’t been listening to me all along. You have ignored that I am not actually a violent person. You have ignored that I am human and sometimes have knee jerk reactions to horrible situations. You have ceased to be a friend, and become the Person With All The Answers™.

So lets look at it in the context of a real example of contention within a movement. Consider the statement “Die Cis Scum.” Certainly to be an effective movement, trans people need cis allies, and yet this statement is a wedge issue for sure. I personally enjoy wedge issues because they end up distinguishing allies from Allies™. “Die Cis Scum” is one of those teaching moments. Lets examine the difference in types of responses between allies and Allies™ in this context. As an ally, you may conscientiously object to implication of violence as a tactic for effecting social change. That is ok. (My friends don’t always want to do the things I want to do). You become an Ally™ the moment you start suggesting that trans people are either promoting violence or violent themselves when they empathize with the “Die Cis Scum” sentiment. Both of those are pure straw arguments meant to co-opt the conversation away from  the movement and do little more than to prove you weren’t listening in the first place.

I didn’t lie when I said that it was messy.

The next thing I want to look at is some things that friends, allies, don’t do.

Friends don’t make jokes at my expense. My friends would never think it is appropriate to make light of child rapists around me. Those who I call my friends, would have been listening all along and know how much something like that could hurt my feelings. Not only would they know, but they would also care enough to not hurt my feelings.

In parallel, allies don’t make jokes at the expense of the movement. I would expect an ally of a feminist movement to automatically know what is wrong with asking “Are you on the rag?” even if they meant it as a joke. Allies don’t make jokes that perpetuate the stereotypes we are trying to tear down together.

Friends don’t avoid your calls. If you have reached the point that you don’t want to take my calls anymore, we have stopped being friends. The reason we have stopped being friends may be my fault, but nonetheless, without communication, I assume the friendship is done.

The same holds true for allies. If a social movement continually calls on you for help and you continually ignore them because 1) you don’t ever agree with their methods/goals, or 2) you have better things to do, you are probably no longer an ally to that social movement.

I am going to interject here and describe a scenario where an ally: social movement ended because their methods/goals became mutually incompatible. Recently, blogger Jadehawk, divorced herself as an ally to the rad fem movement. She clearly lays out her reasons in her post. Rather than continuing to call herself an ally she stood up and said, I no longer agree with you enough to call you my movement. I hope I can expect the same courtesy if my friends dump me.

My friends don’t sabotage me. I recently quit smoking. It was  hard since giving up addictions typically are. In moments of weakness and sheer exasperation at the world, I sometimes expressed the desire to smoke. I get two responses to this expression. My friends (those who have been listening to me this whole time and know how much I want to quit) try and support me in my efforts. They tell me to breathe, to try and calm down, or that my craving will pass. They know my ultimate goal and they are helping me to achieve it. The other response is “You want a cigarette? I can give you one.” I can only think of this person as someone who wants to make my life more difficult. They have now introduced me into a even greater dilemma than I was in before. Didn’t they know that if I wanted to fall of the wagon, I would bum a smoke? It is more like they didn’t care enough to try and help me get through the hard times. Those people aren’t my friends.

Likewise allies in social movements don’t try and sabotage the movement. All too often when fighting privilege, it can seem like an uphill battle. When we get one glimmer of hope in fighting that battle, don’t try telling us our enthusiasm is pointless. Don’t help us give up. Motivate us. Help us. Be an ally.

Friends don’t try to tell me how to live my life. Advice is different. Advice is welcomed by a preemptive request for said advice. When That  Friend™ is constantly telling me that I am raising my kids wrong though, I think that they want me to be them. I think my Friend™ doesn’t like me, or they wouldn’t keep trying to change me.

Allies in social movements don’t try to take over the movement themselves. They accept that advice is sometimes welcomed but not always what is needed or appreciated. They recognize that the movement sometimes must create an identity separate from its allies in order to maintain overall cohesiveness.Think about the divide between accommodationist and confrontationalists in the atheist movement. Allies the two should be, but when members of one side or the other decided theirs it the One True Way™, they cease to be allies and instead are just bossy neighbors with similar tastes.

So knowing what not to do with the tools you have, what are some of the “right” things that friends, allies can do with the tools you have?

My friends give me their time. They may lend an ear or helping hand when I need it. They might even lend or give me money from time to time. Being a good person back to them, I try not to demand too much of my friends. Friends give me their voices. They defend me when my enemies put me down (even if I am not around).  Friends respect me.

Allies give their time. They listen, help organize, recruit, and donate. Being a good social movement, they should recognize that their allies do not all have the same tools and will not demand more than an ally can give. Allies give their voices. They help the social movement even when its members aren’t watching. Allies respect their movement.

But some times friends and their persons need to go their separate ways.

Sometimes allies and movements need to go their separate ways.

And that is ok.

If I suddenly decide that arson is a great pastime and my friend is horribly upset by this new development and cannot change my mind, I expect it is time for our friendship to dissolve.

If your movement’s goals become incompatible with yours, quit your movement. Be like Jadehawk above and sever ties. Don’t give your movement the impression that you remain their ally while stabbing them in the back repeatedly. Don’t just pretend, because eventually it will become apparent you are the Ally™ who is not helping. You are the Ally™ who may be harming.

You are not an ally. You are an opponent. And movements no longer have to claim you as one of their own.




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  1. 1

    Yes, that Anders.

    This is an excellent post, much of what I’ve been looking for. I will have to take some time to assimilate it, but I’ll recommend it in other places I visit.

    Thank you.

  2. 2


    I really like your approach of treating some of these problems of being an ally in miniature, as it were. It throws the interactions into clear relief at a personal scale. I can relate especially to sabotage, since I’ve stupidly been doing some of that lately (please don’t ask how. I seem to be an expert at arson, considering the number of burning bridges I’ve set).

    The question of alliances that split apart amicably, or are beset by deep, unbridgable rifts is difficult in the personal sense as well as the more general. The cliché that the enemy of my enemy is my friend is not true; my enemy’s enemy may also be a rival or competitor. In a 360-degree pie fight, everyone clutching a lemon meringue is an enemy. Likewise the friend of your friend is not always your friend. (A little bit of Real Life Drama: my partner’s best friend’s partner is one of the very few people I’ve met, where I’ve felt in fear of my life had something gone wrong, on an occasion some years ago. As a result I have deep-seated issues trusting him to any degree.) The relationship of this to some controversies in the atheist blogosphere should be obvious enough to need me to draw any more comparisons.

    1. 2.1

      First. Thank you. Sometimes I worry about my style (I don’t want to bore the fuck out of everyone).

      Second, it took me sometime to accept that I could be a part of a larger movement without agreeing with all its factions. It shouldn’t have taken me so long. I was a christian for years and certainly didn’t identify with all other christians in the process. Still yet, I hesitated to call myself a feminist because I didn’t want to be associated with some of the rad fems whose methods I have in the past despised. I have learned better.

      However part of being a friend is not putting undue stress on the person by needling away at them every time they sympathize with other friend. Try to see why your friend likes you both and sometimes accommodate it. Stand you ground when you can’t. If as a friend my person has another friend that is an abusive parent, and my person refuses to acknowledge and call out their friend for such horrible actions, I have to seriously consider whether my person and I can find common ground. I would probably have to dump that person.

      Likewise if your movement keeps making excuses for something that you absolutely cannot excuse (Imagine joining a local animal rights group who has ties with a dog fighting ring) then dump that movement. Find one that aligns with you better. First though try and determine if there is a way to remain friends or allies. It is sad to loose a friend, an ally over something trivial.

  3. 3

    Didn’t you just miss one, though? Isn’t one of the most basic one “Friends stand up for their friends”? If I hear someone making [social movement]-jokes I should show somehow that I don’t approve. If I see someone bullying a [socially exposed group member], I should go there and tell them to bugger of. And while I may not have to risk serious harm or my life to stop an assault (although it’s certainly admirable if I do), I will at least phone the police, film the event with my cell phone for the police to use and stay to support the victim once the assault ebbs out.

    WRT “Die cis scum!” – I’m still thinking about it, and it’s very possible I’ll come around to your view. I had such a strong, visceral reaction to the phrase that I may not have been thinking clearly. We’ll see – I expect a more final decision within a year or so. I like to take my time with questions like these. Just for the record, I have never said that the widespread acceptance of the phrase in the trans community isn’t understandable (at least I hope I’ve never said that…), only that the implications are unacceptable. I worry that the movement is selling its soul and getting a very poor price in the bargain. But I’m a well-known worry-wart.

    1. 3.1

      WRT to the part that I missed. I kind of felt that it was implied in the part about what friends do like lending voices and hands and whatnot. I probably could have drawn it out in more detail though. Sometimes I rush my thoughts too much.

      My whole point Anders is that you dont have to see things my way or the movements way to still be an ally. You can object but cannot expect the movement to change what it is to suit you just like you can’t expect your friends to give up their identities so they can be more like you want them to be. If this issue is a deal breaker for you then you have to decide what aspects of the trans movement you can support (if any at all). You have to find a corner of the movement that is compatible with your goals and ethics.

      1. Anders

        My whole point Anders is that you dont have to see things my way or the movements way to still be an ally. You can object but cannot expect the movement to change what it is to suit you just like you can’t expect your friends to give up their identities so they can be more like you want them to be. If this issue is a deal breaker for you then you have to decide what aspects of the trans movement you can support (if any at all). You have to find a corner of the movement that is compatible with your goals and ethics.

        A very sensible point. I don’t own the movement and it does not own me.

        1. WilloNyx

          “A very sensible point. I don’t own the movement and it does not own me.”

          A very succinct summary of my entire post. Not even sure why I write words. (just kidding but you did summarize the theme quite well)

    2. 3.2

      Glad you’re still out there, since last time you ran off you said you’d been very depressed. Back somewhere after you ran off the first time, I said that a personal stake in the fight would, essentially, prevent one from being driven off by things like “Die Cis Scum”. I didn’t say this very clearly, so you thought I meant one couldn’t be an ally just based on moral arguments. In fact, I said this based on evidence: you yourself are a data point. Can you be an ally to trans activists just for moral reasons? I would have thought so, after all those comments you made. Or, are you just someone who draws attention to yourself and then does nothing to help?

      I hope you realize that *any* movement for social justice needs to have room for a person to be indiscriminately angry against all the people who are like the people who have been hurting them. That doesn’t mean they’ll actually be violent. And if they had no reason to be angry, there wouldn’t be many people supporting their right to lash out. I think in WilloNyx’s excellent analogy, I’d say that a small thing about your friend that you don’t like but they won’t stop doing, will not prevent you from being their friend.

      Have you checked out the stuff about Bill C-279 in Canada?

      1. hall-of-rage

        There’s always a risk that any objection you make as an ally will be seen that way by some people. Since so many so-called allies do make frustratingly useless objections, it’s understandable. So…do you care more about the truth of your objection, or about people giving you credit?

        (I struggle with this issue, of being seen as a good ally or at least not part of the problem, vs. actually being such, all the time–but still don’t have much sympathy for it.)

      2. Anders

        I have behaved like an ass and I make no bones about it. I’ll do my best to remain an ally to the trans gender movement – I’m slowly working myself towards acknowledging that the “Die Cis Scum” kerfuffle is not enough to drive me away… 🙂

        Yeah, I’ve checked out C-279 and I’ve signed it. I’d post it on the Giant’s forum, but politics is a banned subject on that forum.

        1. WilloNyx

          I hope I am not driving you crazy by hammering this point home. If you decide you cannot handle “die cis scum” you are still capable of being an ally to the overall trans movement. You may have to find a section of the trans movement that denounces the use of it (kind of like #transagainstdiecisscum) or you may have to decide this is one of those places where you and your movement agree to disagree. It just isn’t a place where you are likely to affect change within the movement. Just remember that #transagainstdiecisscum and #transfordiecisscum are in someways opponents and in someways allies as well. This is just one issue in a much greater, bigger movement.

          I liken it to this, I have an uneasy alliance with the WBC. I wouldn’t even say that I am their ally. I thoroughly hate their rhetoric, goals, and tactics. However, I have strong alliance with protecting the first amendment of the US Constitution. Because I consider it a strong alliance, I sometimes defend the amendment’s ugly friends in the north. That means, I support the amendment’s goals so much that I find myself speaking up and defending WBC’s right to spew forth vile shit from their mouths. (I need to clarify here, there are limits to which I believe they are protected by the first amendment. Some of those limits they wouldn’t agree with.)

          So you get to decide how much you support the over all trans movement. Do you protect it so much that you defend in public the right to express the sentiment “die cis scum?” I have made it clear repeatedly that I do, and why I do. I have made it clear that I have listened to the people I am in alliance with enough to know 1) they don’t mean it literally, and 2) they find it as a source of empowerment, and 3) if a faction did start to take it literally, the ones I ally with would easily denounce them and probably reconsider the use of the phrase. Basically I have entered into a contract of trust with my movement. I trust them to do the right thing with their “empowering tool” because they have shown in the past they want to do the right thing. In that sense, I as an ally choose not to find their “empowering tool” not as a deal breaker or even a point of contention between me and my movement.

          1. Anders

            It would have been so easy if Asher’s friend had gone with “Die Transphobes!” instead. Preserves the same three-syllable structure and has the same sibilants to make it sound like a hisssss…

  4. 4
    Fortuna Veritas

    Was it your intention to imply that an ally would be allowed to feel uncomfortable but if they voiced any objections at all to such a statement or its use becoming prevalent on any grounds, even pragmatic ones then they would instantly become an “Ally” who is actually betraying trans* people and the movement in general?

    1. 4.1

      Please explain exactly where I implied that you cannot voice objections. I believe that I specifically said that you may disagree even vocally. Friends, allies don’t always have the same methods. They do respect the autonomy of their person, social movement enough to not force their opinion on “how it should be done” on them. If you disagree, and it is strong enough that you feel you must state that disagreement then by all means speak up. Just accept that your person, or social movement may not see things your way and be prepared to empahtize with why they don’t.

      1. Fortuna Veritas

        “As an ally, you may conscientiously object to implication of violence as a tactic for effecting social change. That is ok. (My friends don’t always want to do the things I want to do).”

        It might just be that I’ve only seen conscitious objection brought up in a silent, passive way before, but that very heavily suggested a feel of while not supporting the actively disagreed with thing to not say anything to object to it either. Especially in conjunction with the sentences that come afterward.

        “You become an Ally™ the moment you start suggesting that trans people are either promoting violence or violent themselves when they empathize with the “Die Cis Scum” sentiment. Both of those are pure straw arguments meant to co-opt the conversation away from the movement and do little more than to prove you weren’t listening in the first place.”

        This goes on to characterize any possible grounds for objection to such a sentiment as being as much of a distraction and meaningless as the two you went on to name, because by specifically naming only those reasons for objecting to it and no others, you deny the existence of other reasons for having objected to such a statement getting sloganized.

        I’ve re-read this article 4 times now and I have yet to see where you actually state that objections can be voiced, so I apologize for that, but after the last kerfluffle that came up because of the discussion of “Die Cis Scum” and the accusation that one couldn’t think it was a bit of a foolish thing to say in the first place, much less something to get taken up as a banner of the movement to rally to without being automatically transphobic and worse (somehow…) than the people who used to torture trans people in order to “fix” them, well, I’m perhaps a bit oversensitive to people who even appear to be saying that people don’t have a right to any kind of voice.

        1. WilloNyx

          Ok, I see what you are saying.

          Conscientious objectors often in the past have been very vocal about their objections. It merely means objecting based on your conscience. I would never expect someone act in a way that violates their morals and I would expect most friends of mine to speak up when something does violate their morals.

          I can see how you would take this to mean something other than what I stated though if the only context you have seen conscientious objectors act was a silent context. So if that is how you took the term then it would be easy to miss how I wanted conscientiously objecting to relate to “speaking up” to your friend in the previous paragraph.

          Now, “Die Cis Scum” you can hate this and still be an ally. You can state that you hate this and still be an ally. What you cannot do is assume that your movement by virtue of sympathizing with the statement, is suddenly something other than what it has shown itself to be in the past.

          Assuming that this statement is a rallying cry toward trans on cis violence is actually a straw-stuffed-to-the-brim-argument because, so far hate crimes against cis haven’t once actually been advocated, nor have they actually happened. On the other hand vocalizing that such a statement has the potential to beget a violent subset of the overall movement may be founded in reality. Of course it has the potential.You get to decide in your conscience 1) how likely it is that using “Die Cis Scum” as a rallying cry is to cause realized hate crimes (imo: highly unlikely) 2) Whether the fact that your movement uses “Die Cis Scum” is a deal breaker for you. (it is not a deal breaker for me) If it is, then you may have to sever ties with the corner of the trans movement that vocally empathizes with “Die Cis Scum.” You cannot try and force them to get rid of it because 1) it won’t work and 2) they get to have separate identities other than yours.

          The movement gets to decide whether your vocal form of objection is one that helps or hinders their overall cohesiveness. Much I like I get to decide if my friend is really being a friend to me. That doesn’t mean you can stop trying to help but just be prepared that if your help is perceived as being harmful the movement is not required to claim you as an ally.

          Likewise if your feel your movement repeatedly tries to silence your voice within your movement (for what you perceive as no good reason), then it maybe time to no longer associate with that movement. I wouldn’t be in a relationship that offers me no utility. You shouldn’t either.

          I hope that clears up the confusion of my stance on friendship, voicing opinions, etc.

          If not I will not be able to do any more thought out replies for some hours. Parenting stuff to attend to.

  5. 5

    I don’t know if this helps in any way, but it seems to me that there are three ways to root for a movement; you can be a Supporter, an Ally, and a Core Member.

    * Supporters generally share the goals of the movement, but do not get actively involved. Sure, they can sign petitions and stuff like that but they won’t seek out petitions to sign, they won’t walk in demonstrations, and so on.

    * Allies are actively involved, but not members of the Core group. They are considerably more active than Supporters and will participate in debates, both external and internal. Can work with strategies but should stay out of determining the goals of the movement.

    * Core Members are those who are directly, personally involved. In the trans movement, that would be people who identify as transsexuals. They are not defined by their level of involvement – many of them probably just keep their heads down and strive to live as well as they can – but by them being stigmatized? This section needs more work, and I’m not too fond of the moniker either; makes it sound like Allies are second-class members. Anyway, these are the people who should ultimately determine where the movement is heading.

    There are, of course, many shades of gray in the distinction between Supporters and Allies, and it’s not like there’s a central committee that determines what titles should be awarded to whom.


    1. 5.1

      They may be unnecessary delineations forced on a spectrum of support for various types of movements but I see what you are getting at. Each one of those terms can kind of feel cliquish but that is often how it ends up anyway.

      I will think on it some. Probably won’t reach any conclusions anytime soon though.

  1. 6
    More Important Things | Sincerely, Natalie Reed

    […] Dear dear WilloNyx weighs in on what it means to be an ally. […]

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